Monthly Archives: October 2012

Science Museum Halloween Guests

Halloween at the Museum

By Claire Hunt, Development Team

Ghostly goings on dominated our Flight gallery last Friday as over 400 corporate members and members of the museum dusted off their finest spooky outfits to join the Development Team for their annual Halloween Evening. You can tag yourself in images from the night on Facebook.

The ghost of Albert Einstein

The ghost of Albert Einstein

Guests were greeted by the ghosts of Albert Einstein and Amy Johnson and treated to a delicious Halloween inspired menu of autumnal stews served from witches cauldrons and jellied eyeballs. Our creative choreographer transformed the younger guests into dancing zombies whilst they rocked out to Michael Jackson’s iconic song: Thriller and our resident DJ ensured the tunes flowed all night.

Science Museum Halloween Guests

Located in the dark depths of our fourth floor Medical Gallery was the terrifying torch lit treasure hunt where our guests tackled a series of questions with only a torch to unearth the answers. Guests also had the opportunity to make, and understand the scientific properties of, slime as well as create some Halloween inspired fridge magnets and jewellery.

The terrifying torch lit treasure hunt

The terrifying torch lit treasure hunt

Overall the event was a huge success with over 1,000 members applying for our limited, and much sought after, tickets. The Development Team is already planning next year’s event which looks set to be the biggest yet.

A Lifetime of Work

A Lifetime of Work: The Lovelock Archive

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, Science Museum

It’s an amazing image to conjure with: the 23-year old James Lovelock, our most famous independent scientist, cradling a baby in his arms who would grow to become the world’s best known scientist, Stephen Hawking.

Lovelock told me about this touching encounter during one of his recent visits to the Science Museum, a vivid reminder of why the museum has spent £300,000 on his archive, an extraordinary collection of notebooks, manuscripts photographs and correspondence that reveals the remarkable extent of his research over a lifetime, from cryobiology and colds to Gaia and geoengineering.

A Lifetime of Work

A Lifetime of Work: Notebooks, manuscripts photographs and correspondence from the Lovelock archive

Lovelock, who was born on 26 July 1919, must have encountered the great cosmologist in the year of Hawking’s birth, 1942, when he was working at the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research, after graduating in chemistry from Manchester University the year before.

Hawking’s father was Frank Hawking (1905-1986) who spent much of his working life at the NIMR studying parasitology. Lovelock was doing research at the time of the encounter on sneezing and disinfection, publishing his first scientific paper, in the British Medical Journal, that same year.

As for his impact, there’s no better way to emphasise Lovelock’s stature than to read the foreword of one of his recent books, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, by Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal, and the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who describes him as among the most important independent scientists of the last century: “He is a hero to many scientists – certainly to me.”

Lovelock has made headlines for his views on the environment, and his support for nuclear power (he once told me he would happily store nuclear waste in his garden), but he is best known for introducing the world to the seductive idea of Gaia, which says the Earth behaves as though it were an organism. The concept first reached a wide audience in 1975 in an article published in New Scientist, but was ridiculed, attacked for being teleological, even mocked as an “evil religion”.

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld, helped Gaia mature from a hypothesis into a theory by putting it on a mathematical foundation. Light, and dark, coloured daisies evolved within an idealised world, waxing and waning to balance the way they absorbed and reflected sunlight to regulate the temperature, so it was optimum for plant growth. Among the items acquired by the museum is a Hewlett Packard computer that Lovelock used for Daisyworld.

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld

Bolstering Lovelock’s Gaian vision came experimental evidence, the discovery that sulphur from ocean algae circulated worldwide in a form that has since been linked with the formation of clouds that are able to cool the world by reflecting sunlight back into space. Today, Gaia’s influence stretches beyond Earth to music, fiction and even computer games.

The Science Museum’s collection includes Lovelock’s Electron Capture Detector which he invented in 1956 to detect a range of substances, he explained, ‘mostly nasty poisons and carcinogens, or else harmful to the atmosphere like nitrous oxide and halocarbons.’ In the summer of 1967 Lovelock used it measured the supposedly clean air blowing off the Atlantic onto Ireland’s west coast and found that it contained CFCs, now known to cause ozone depletion. ‘It’s sad that it would now be almost impossible for a lone scientist like me to make or use an ECD without breaking the health and safety laws,’ he told me.

Electron capture detector for a gas chromatograph

James Lovelock developed this highly sensitive detector for measuring air pollution in 1960.

I have met this green guru on and off since 1991 and, the last time we talked, he was as provocative as ever. The attempts to model the Earth’s climate system do not yet fully include the response of the ecosystem of the land or oceans, and Lovelock warned about feedback effects, some that can damp down climate change and others that accelerate it, and he predicts a threshold above which there could be a five degree increase in temperature.

He is withering about the attempt of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to forge a consensus, a word that he says has no place in science. That is no surprise. From 1964 Lovelock has worked as an independent scientist and he is writing a book about being a lone scientist in response to an article in the Wall Street Journal which argued that the scientific process can only happen through collaboration. Lovelock believes that lone scientists can work more like artists in that they can be reflective and do not necessarily need other people to collaborate with.

And when it comes to the fate of our home world, all is not lost. Lovelock, like many others, is receptive to another idea that, relatively recently, was laughed off as unrealistic, even a little mad: geoengineering, or “planetary medicine”, which could mean cooling the Earth by the use of space mirrors or clouds of particulates.

Lovelock, who has been visiting the Science Museum since the age of seven, teamed with a former Museum Director, Chris Rapley, to devise another way to cool our overheated world: pumping chilly waters from the ocean depths to fertilize the growth of carbon-hungry blooms.

Tilly Blyth, our Keeper of Technologies and Engineering and Alison Boyle, our Curator of Astronomy and Modern Physics, chose to be pictured with Babbage's Difference Engine No 2, in this photograph by Greg Funnell

The Female Face of Science

What do you see when you picture a scientist? Too often, it’s a man with crazy white hair, and although this may be due to the genius of one man, it is still worrying that far fewer women than men work in science.

Tomorrow's World

Tomorrow's World, taken in the BBC Studios at Alexandra Palace by Greg Funnell

At the Science Museum this evening, ScienceGrrl is launching a calendar to change this. Featuring 13 stunning images of scientists (both male and female), including two of our own Curators, the calendar aims to encourage girls and young women to see science as an enriching, exciting career, while also raising money for projects which break down gender stereotypes.

Tilly Blyth, our Keeper of Technologies and Engineering and Alison Boyle, our Curator of Astronomy and Modern Physics, chose to be pictured with Babbage’s Difference Engine No 2.

Tilly Blyth (l) and Alison Boyle (r) pictured with Babbage's Difference Engine No 2 in this photograph by Greg Funnell

Tilly has a fascinating collection to look after, including Stephenson’s rocket, the Apollo 10 space capsule and Charles Babbage’s Difference engine. She thinks that science is a vital part of our culture and is currently working on the new Making Modern Communications gallery, which opens in 2014.

The objects Alison helps the museum collect today will shape future generations’ understanding of science and technology. Alison loves the variety of working in the museum, from holding a first edition (1543) of Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres to leading an exhibition on the Large Hadron Collider, which opens next year.

There’s more information on the Science Grrl website, and the calendar can be bought here.

French human skin with tattoos

Writer-in-Residence

Our writer in residence, Mick Jackson, gave us a few words on his tenure here at the Science Museum.

The flag on top of the Science Museum has been lowered to half-mast. It’s a modest gesture, marking the fact that my tenure as writer-in-residence is slowly drawing to a close. People ask, with some justification, what a writer-in-residence actually does. Well, in my case, it was a number of things: I offered writing surgeries to the museum’s staff (a surprising number of whom are privately working on a novel or collection of stories), I composed a short ‘jogging memoir’ to coincide with the Olympics and I generally tried to make myself available and useful.

In return I was given access to some of the museum’s more obscure nooks and crannies, as well as its extensive stores (two of the items that made the greatest impression on me were the 19th Century ‘French human skin with tattoos’ and early lunar photographs). I also took part in a press interview with Sky TV’s ‘The Book Show’ – talking about the residency here as well as appearing in the Bookseller magazine.

French human skin with tattoos
Human skin, with tattoos of women’s heads, France, 1900-1920

Just as importantly, I was given access to the museum’s employees. I could list a hundred inspiring meetings I’ve had over the year but shall limit myself to one. Did you know that the Science Museum has a disused observatory on its roof? No, neither did I. The curator of astronomy and modern physics, Alison Boyle, showed me round soon after I arrived. I know practically nothing about astronomy but the visit encouraged me to start finding out. Until I saw a notice on the wall I’d never previously come across the concept of sidereal time. In the short term it inspired a short story which was commissioned by The Verb / Radio 3, ‘Information regarding the stars’, but I’ll be surprised if I don’t revisit the idea.

The Science Museum

Anyway, heartfelt thanks to the museum and all who work in her. I’m sure that I’ll be drawing on the ideas I’ve uncovered here for years to come. As a farewell gift to the public I shall be tweeting some behind-the-scenes photos of the museum over the coming weeks (@mickwriter). After that, who knows? The Science Museum’s a big place. If I can just keep a hold of my security pass people might not notice that I never actually left …

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Visitor Drawings – London 2012

‘Inspire a generation’ – that was the motto for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games.  Some of our visitors were so inspired by the Games, when handed some colouring pencils and paper, they were only ever going to draw one thing.  And in the true Olympic spirit, our visitors strived to make their drawings the very best they could be!

Here’s a selection of London 2012-inspired drawings.  Click on any image for larger pictures.

Explainer Fact: Check out the Genium Bionic Prosthetic System and running blade currently being shown in the Antenna gallery.

Fiona Fox, head of the Science Media Centre, welcomes a 400-strong audience to the museum

Happy 10th Anniversary to the Science Media Centre

By James Bailey, Head of Communications, Science Museum Group

Earlier this week we celebrated the 10th Anniversary of the Science Media Centre (SMC) here at the Science Museum. For those who don’t know, the SMC connects journalists with scientists across the UK, helping bridge the gap between science and the public and improving the way science is covered in the media. There’s a great video explaining how the organisation works here.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, welcomed Fiona Fox, head of the Science Media Centre, and a 400-strong audience to the museum to hear inspiring stories from scientists, politicians and journalists, on what was Ian’s second anniversary as the Science Museum’s Director.

Sir Mark Walport, the head of the Wellcome Trust and the next Chief Scientific Adviser to Government , spoke about the importance of openness in scientific research, highlighting the impact of the SMC on this area. Racing driver and former science minister, Lord Drayson, discussed bravery and the need for scientists to speak about the importance of their research, especially in a crisis.

Fiona Fox, head of the Science Media Centre, welcomes a 400-strong audience to the museum

Finally, ITN’s Science Editor, Lawrence McGinty, recalled life as a science journalist before university press officers and the SMC. Comparing the SMC to a mobile phone, Lawrence noted life as a science journalist would now be impossible without the Science Media Centre.

A number of well-known scientists attended the party, including Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Physics and Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford and Professor John Womersley, head of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. The Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP was also in the audience.

Science Media Centre guests in the Making the Modern World gallery

Many journalists were also keen to celebrate 10 years of the Science Media Centre, including Nick Collins at the Daily Telegraph, Alok Jha from the Guardian, Fergus Walsh and David Shukman of the BBC and Clive Cookson at the Financial Times.

After a great 10th Birthday party, we hope the Science Media Centre continues to make a positive difference to the relationship between science, the media and the public.

The BBC’s 2LO transmitter

Research: putting a very big ‘open’ sign on the door

By Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History

At the end of last month, the Science Museum Group formally launched its new Research and Public History Department. Research is at the heart of every great museum; without it we cannot understand the stories our collections tell, how our audiences engage, or how to slow the deterioration of our objects.

BBC Horizon producers discuss the programme’s history at the Science Museum

Horizon producers discussing the programme’s history at a recent AHRC-funded event organised by the Research & Public History Department.

If research is so central, it may seem odd that we are having this launch now in 2012. And, of course, research has always had a role at the Museum. But what this launch signifies is a hunger to do more, in a greater variety of ways, and with an increasingly diverse range of partners.

Any scholar intrigued by the Museum’s collections, its galleries, or curious about the way that its galleries act as a public space for science and technology, is invited to work with us to delve deeper and to understand better; to research with us.

The BBC’s 2LO transmitter

The BBC’s 2LO transmitter, subject of a recently-completed AHRC-funded collaborative doctorate.

Ludmilla Jordanova, the eminent historian and Science Museum Group Trustee, argued at the opening event that, “it is fitting that a group of museums about ‘science’, which in many languages still has the broad meaning of knowledge and learning, should use and foster a wide range of approaches to understanding some of the most central phenomena of human existence, namely science in its more specific sense, medicine and technology.”

But what is research? Ludmilla suggested that it is ‘sustained nosiness’; that it is a kind of ‘systematic curiosity’. This definition gives a clue to that other phrase in our title, public history. At one level, academic research is simply a more intensive version of what all of us do when we visit a museum or gallery with a wish to understand more and better.

So, we are interested in how our visitors think about the history of science, and in developing insights that will enable us to attune our offer better. But we also know that the academics who work with us – historians, education experts, geographers, media scholars and many others – bring new and exciting ways of seeing from their own disciplines.

The research door is open; we encourage you to come in.